Ben Kay Column
Borthwick must find the X-factor
ESPN's Ben Kay
September 15, 2010
Will a return to top form catapult Steve Borthwick back into the England frame? © Getty Images
We're two weeks into the season and I'm glad to report that the gruelling schedule and the near-constant presence of Austin Healey are yet to take their toll - thanks largely to the high quality rugby that's been served up for the ESPN TV cameras and elsewhere.
There have been plenty of talking points but of particular interest to me was the performance of Steve Borthwick who made his first appearance of the season as a replacement in Saracens' victory over Sale Sharks at Vicarage Road. It was Borthers' first appearance since being dropped by England manager Martin Johnson and his impact on the home side's set piece was singled out for praise by Sarries boss Brendan Venter. But the thing is that the England management know exactly what he can do in that aspect of the game. They know he adds strength to any lineout but I don't think that is why he has been left out of the current England squad and it will certainly take more than that to see him return.
However, there is an argument that says England are short of lineout leaders in their current squad - a role that Borthwick could easily perform. They've currently got Tom Palmer who has done a reasonable job and did well on the summer tour but in past seasons has not been the best of lineout leaders. But I think he is the only one of the current crop of second rows who would regularly call lineouts for his team. Dave Attwood doesn't at Gloucester, Simon Shaw doesn't at Wasps and Courtney Lawes doesn't at Northampton but crucially, I would say that the lineout is not the strongest part of their respective games. That means a lot of responsibility falls upon Tom Palmer if he isn't up to the task then that is maybe an area where Borthwick could add something but it appears that the England management want to see a lot more from him around the pitch. He may well have had a huge impact on Sunday's game but I don't think that will have changed any minds within the England set-up.
When I was in that position I just wanted to get my head down and work and I'm not sure how Borthers is approaching it but I can assure you he won't leave any stone unturned. He is the ultimate professional in terms of his preparation. If he doesn't get back into the England squad it will not be down to laziness or lack of application. Martin Johnson knows he is a very committed individual but that's not the issue. They want to see more of the X-factor about him and as a result he must impress doing the basics and all the other stuff.
There was more than one good performance at Vicarage Road with Sarries winger David Strettle also catching the eye but I'd like to single out another impressive display - that of referee Wayne Barnes. I was a bit disappointed with some of the officiating on the first weekend especially at the number of yellow cards that were brandished. But I guess they have had to lay the law down at the breakdown and elsewhere to make sure that the latest interpretations to work. Last weekend was much better and Barnes in particular was superb. I think he got it spot on. He did show a yellow card but his chat to the players throughout the game was top drawer. He was almost trying to prevent the need to give away penalties by explaining exactly what he wanted from the players which was excellent.
When I was still playing, a referee like Tony Spreadbury was superb. He would make the odd mistake but if he made a decision that he later realised may have been wrong he would turn round to you on the pitch and say, "I think I balls'd that one up!" and you would accept that and get on with it. Players make mistakes and referees do too so I would like to see referees given the chance to explain themselves. But at the same time I wouldn't like to see referees' performances picked to pieces after every game. Referees are human and fallible and there will be times when they make mistakes and we should just accept that.
Looking ahead, Northampton tackle Bath on Friday night in a game that I am genuinely excited about. It will be interesting to see how Bath emerge from a bruising win over London Irish last weekend and if Matt Banahan in particular will be fit for the game. He's probably impressed me most this season and no-one seems to know how to deal with him running at pace in midfield. He started at outside centre in the season opener due to injury and reverted back to the wing last weekend but I hope that switch isn't permanent because enforced as it was; the experiment seemed to breathe new life into him and Bath as a team who were becoming a little predictable in how they used him.
He may not have yet met the strongest defences in the Premiership yet, but if he continues to produce that kind of form he could be in for a very big year. England need players who can do things that other players can't and Banahan fits that bill in the way he has been breaking tackles and off-loading in contact. He could well be a player that Martin Johnson builds his side around come the World Cup.
The other mouth-watering clash sees Leicester tackle Wasps at Adams Park. The Tigers are clearly not at the races yet having been disrupted by injuries - particularly in the second row. They've always based their game on a good set piece and they've been doing well as the scrum but their lineout is a shambles. It will help now that Tom Croft is back because he will give them another option but they still have plenty of work to do. But Wasps are not the strongest side at the lineout. They don't spend a lot of time on it, particularly defensive lineouts, so Leicester should have an easier time of it this weekend. The teams appear fairly evenly matched but you're almost waiting for both sides to click into gear and whoever does that first will come out on top.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN